Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lifting the ban on stem cell funding

Stem cell Q & A

The scientific community had reason to celebrate when President Barack Obama signed an executive order on March 9 removing the previous administration’s restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research. The order lifted the ban on federal funding for research using embryonic stem cell lines created after August 9, 2001, fulfilling one of Obama’s campaign promises.

Investigators at the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Regenerative Medicine are excited by the possibilities presented by the change, hoping it will foster scientific collaboration, new funding and advances in this burgeoning field.

Human embryonic stem cells have the ability to develop into any tissue in the body. Researchers hope to someday use this capability to repair damage to organs and tissue caused by injury and chronic illness.

In the following interview, David Scadden, MD, director of the Center of Regenerative Medicine and codirector of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, explains what this executive order will mean for the advancement of stem cell science.

What impact will President Obama’s announcement have on you and your colleagues?

Dr. Scadden: We are tremendously heartened by the President’s action. Science in this extremely promising area can now enter the playing field of ideas, opportunities and competition for funding without the overlay of political constraint. It is the beginning of a new era for stem cell science and I hope the end of discovery being shackled back for political purposes.

What were some of the challenges researchers faced under the previous administration’s stance on embryonic stem cell research?

Dr. Scadden: The previous restrictions required stem cell scientists to maintain duplicate equipment and other resources in their laboratories in order to separate privately- or state-funded stem cell research from federal government-funded efforts. It also hindered collaboration among scientists and the sharing of data and ideas. Perhaps most important, it cast an ideological cloud over stem cell research that discouraged many bright young scientists from going into the field.

How does the ability to work with stem cell lines created after August 9, 2001, benefit scientific research?

Dr. Scadden: Since that date, hundreds of stem cell lines have been created that are better suited for research than the stem cell lines that were previously approved for work under federal funding. Those newer cell lines are more diverse. Many of them carry the traits of specific chronic diseases and make excellent tools for the study of those conditions and potential drugs to treat them. In addition, unlike many of the approved cells, the newer cell lines were created by a process that didn’t involve mouse cells, which means they don’t carry foreign agents and can potentially be used to treat human disease.

There have been recent advancements in research using adult stem cells, including progress toward reprogramming adult cells to an embryonic-like state. Will this work be affected by the removal of the restrictions?

Dr. Scadden: This work will be complemented by the removal of the restrictions. To truly understand the properties of reprogrammed cells and apply them to clinical use, we need the insights that can be gained from research on embryonic stem cells, which are naturally programmed to develop into any of the body’s cell types. The best approach will be to pursue both fronts simultaneously. Now that the ban has been lifted, embryonic stem cell work will flourish.

Now that researchers have more freedom to study embryonic stem cells, does that reduce the importance of studies using adult stem cells?

Dr. Scadden: Although we have made great strides in recent years, stem cell research is still at a very early stage and many fundamental questions remain.  For example, we are just beginning to understand the rules that govern embryonic and adult stem cells, including reprogrammed adult cells, and to explore their similarities and differences. Research on each of these types of cells needs to continue if we hope to expand our understanding of what fails in the disease process and how we can overcome that failure to develop safe and effective therapies.

What do you see as the potential of stem cell research?

Dr. Scadden: Stem cell research offers the remarkable promise of harnessing the body’s innate capacity to heal itself, to potentially reverse, not just forestall, disabling chronic disease. Stem cells have already been used to treat disease in tens of thousands of patients. They are, for example, the basis of bone marrow transplants, which save the lives of people suffering from blood diseases and cancer. We believe this early success with blood stem cells is just a hint of the breakthroughs to come in stem cell therapies. These cells can develop into any of the cells, and potentially any of the organs, in the human body. They may therefore be the basis for restoring function in a wide range of tissues damaged by disease, trauma or aging.

To me these regenerative properties, taken together with recent discoveries in the field, show how stem cell research is really beginning to translate into stem cell medicine. Here at the Center for Regenerative Medicine, we sit at the nexus of a rich scientific, clinical and commercial community all steeped in the culture of collaboration. That gives me great hope for our ability to advance this therapeutic mission and have a substantial impact on human health.

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